It's not every day you get the chance to sit at a table, sip wine, and nibble on cheese while watching an award-winning play performed on a ballroom stage—and because of COVID-19, it's likely such a chance won't come again for a few more weeks, at least. But on Friday, March 13, about 50 people shared that experience at opening night of To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, a play written by Michael Brady and presented by Wine Country Theatre, at the Park Ballroom in Paso Robles.
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday tells the story of 37-year-old widower David Lewis (Craig Culp), who lost his wife, Gillian (Rayna Ortiz), two years prior, after she fell from a mast she had climbed up on the couple's boat.
Since his wife's death, David left his teaching job, has ignored his family, and has isolated himself at his New Castle, New Hampshire, beach house. He spends his time walking the beach and talking to Gillian's ghost. Set during the last weekend of August, summer is coming to an end, and what would be Gillian's 37th birthday is a day away.
Tough subjects like love, loss, depression, letting go, and moving on are approached with humor, wit, and compassion within an impressive set.
As the play begins, the sound of waves crashing and crickets chirping bring an air of lightness to the room. Audience laughter fills the ballroom as David and his neighbor, teenager Cindy Bayles (Lexi Sidders), banter as they take turns looking through a telescope and naming constellations on the back deck of the house. The chemistry between the actors is evident and the audience is amused.
When David finds himself alone, after ignoring his daughter's pleas to come inside, he is melancholy and calls out to his wife's ghost, "Gill." A sorrowful look crosses his face as the scene ends.
Though the material is heavy at times, the play is filled with more lighthearted moments provided by David's sister, Esther Wheeler (Christine Miller), and brother-in-law, Paul (Mark Klassen), as well as Kevin Dollof (Whitney Adams), who the couple has brought to the beach house in an effort to get David out of his funk.
Cindy, who always seems to be going on a run or returning from one, is jealous of Kevin.
Esther, who practices breathing exercises while repeating, "In good, out shit," is hilarious. Her husband, Paul, who is always telling jokes that she finds tedious, also provides comic relief.
It is this back-and-forth dynamic—whether a serious dialogue about David moving on with his life or something funny between the rest of the cast—that makes To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday so relatable. Sometimes, those who love you make you laugh, and other times they make you cry. During this weekend in New Hampshire, as the group spends time reminiscing, drinking, laughing, yelling, and crying, they also learn the most important lesson: what it means to really be there for each other.
"The story is fresh and unpredictable. I love the comedy and warmth in this show," said director Brent Keast. "The play is powerful, and questions the strength of human connection, capturing the emotional tribulations of a family coping with the death of a family member while yearning for life."
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Wine Country Theatre has put this production on hold until further notice. Stay tuned, though, because the small nonprofit theater group expects to pick it up where it left off, at David's summer beach house. Δ
Arts Writer Rebecca Howes cannot wait for her next visit to the Wine Country Theatre. Send arts story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.